“The GameStop rally marked a crystallising moment for the online mob,” a technology reporter at The Washington Post wrote shortly after the dust had settled earlier this year, following a tumultuous swing of fortunes in which the equity price of the struggling American video game retailer shot up from 4 USD a share, to 347 USD, before finally settling at around 200 USD. The reason? Day traders organising themselves on Reddit had gotten behind it, to the dismay of margin-called hedge funds who had been betting against the stock. “Distrustful of major institutions, angry at the powers that be, a faceless crowd brought together by a single website had, in a time of great loneliness, co-ordinated a strategy forceful enough to move markets and reshape the world.”
But Steve Huffman, the 37-year-old co-founder and chief executive of Reddit is having none of it. “Journalists have encouraged a perception that communities that organise effectively online are a cause for alarm,” he says. “Why? It’s like, are grassroots movements a new thing? That’s what people are behaving like.” He pantomimes the moral panic: “‘Oh my God! People have a voice? The horror!’ Can you imagine? In a democracy, freaking out about it? That’s the point of democracy.” He spits out that word “point” with bitter emphasis, which seems to calm him down. “But then I guess it’s like, ‘Oh, people have a voice online?’” His voice drops. “It’s the point of the internet. To bring people together.”
Of course, the idea that Reddit had influence is hardly news. Founded in 2005, the company has long described itself as “the front page of the internet”. According to Alexa data analytics, it is the seventh most visited website in the US (after Google, YouTube, Amazon, Yahoo, Zoom and Facebook) and the 19th most popular in the world. It has more than 50 million active daily global users (and far more occasional ones), many of whom post extensively. They also vote for or against each other’s posts, generating a real-time ranking system that dictates the prominence that those posts achieve. Made up of more than 100,000 separate communities, all with their own internal rules and characteristics, Reddit is therefore both a marketplace for popular ideas – and jokes – and a potential home for every conceivable niche subculture on Earth.
Yet, the site and its associated app go deeper than that. Reddit’s rules, which require only a pseudonym, rather than a real name, mean that vulnerable individuals, including rape victims, addicts and people preparing to come out of the closet, can find support from people with similar experiences without fear of being tracked by their families, classmates or colleagues. On the other hand, the comfort of anonymity has dark consequences. In 2015 the Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate group watchdog, declared that Reddit was home to “the most violently racist content on the internet” and for years black Reddit users complained that their own large communities were constantly invaded by white racists masquerading as black people who then unleashed torrents of bile at them. The company insists that new regulations have done much to eradicate such abusive behaviour.
Nonetheless, Reddit’s most popular communities include ones dedicated to solving scientific queries (r/askscience), discussing books (r/books) and sharing interesting maps (r/MapPorn). Or, of course, you can go to r/reverseanimalrescue to see a video played backwards so it looks like a man is ripping a sloth off a tree and cruelly placing it in the middle of a road to die. The most liked Reddit post ever is a 1989 photograph of the singer Rick Astley posted last year by the actual Rick Astley. Make of that what you will but the world’s top politicians also use the site to reach out to voters. In 2012 President Obama answered questions on Reddit’s Ask Me Anything forum. When Reddit later ran a similar Q&A with the Onion’s Joe Biden impersonator, the real Joe Biden, the vice-president at the time, sent in his own question.
The site is even an effective election forecaster, Huffman says. In 2016 the “sheer amount of human energy” on Reddit stirred up by Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy dwarfed the excitement on left-leaning parts of the site. You could “100 per cent” tell that he was going to win the election. Similarly, by the autumn of 2019 “it was pretty clear the energy was gone”. In other words, Reddit offers a constantly refreshed mixture of heavyweight content, virulent invective, life-saving compassion and joyous froth.
For all its reach and impact, though, the company is nowhere near the size of its largest competitors, at least for now. It has just 800 staff (only 51 of whom are based overseas), compared with more than 58,000 for Facebook and more than 5,000 for Twitter. The two larger social media businesses are also worth much more, with stock market valuations of 800 billion USD and 49 billion USD respectively, compared to Reddit’s 10 billion USD.
Still, Huffman has big plans for its expansion and a potential stock market float before long. “Our mission is to bring community and belonging to everybody in the world,” he says. “I believe there is an opportunity for everyone in the world to find community on Reddit. So, our ambition is everybody. We’ve got a long way to go.”
I ask Huffman if his personal ambitions are as large. Don’t forget, he sold his founder’s stake in Reddit when he was in his early twenties, but has since acquired a generous chief executive-sized slice of the business. “I’ve had enough money to live for pretty much my entire adult life, but it’s not a fantastic amount. Now Reddit’s become really valuable…” Huffman trails off, looking a little haunted.
He almost sounds anxious about the prospect.
“Sort of,” he agrees. “My honest answer is: I just don’t know.”
He shares a home in San Francisco, a ten-minute cycle ride away, with his fiancée. “She runs marketing for a start-up.” They have a dog (a cavapoo) and an eight-month-old daughter. Laying out the process like the thorough software engineer he is, Huffman points out that their child was “conceived and born, the whole thing” during the pandemic. He affects a shy voice. “Covid is a very romantic virus.”
For Huffman, Reddit is a natural by-product of humanity as a whole. “It’s like a city, which develops naturally over time. You can live in a city or just visit. You can go shopping, work, eat, enjoy the culture, explore neighbourhoods. Reddit is the same,” he explains. “You could come to learn things, to have a few laughs. You can check the news. You can give or receive support. You can have fun. You can argue about politics.” It is, he adds, “certainly the most human of the internet platforms.” Why? Because “it’s run by humans,” not algorithms. Its communities are also self-governing, as long as they comply with Reddit’s platform-wide policies. Each subreddit is largely policed by its own users and volunteer moderators, who shape its distinctive community character. “The other platforms don’t really have that.”
Huffman loves to observe these communities, like an anthropologist studying obscure tribes, and with its “self-assured” culture, WallStreetBets – the raucous community of mostly amateur investors who fueled the GameStop frenzy – was one of his “guilty pleasures.”
He created Reddit in 2005 with Alexis Ohanian, his best friend at the University of Virginia, who is now married to the tennis player Serena Williams. They were building on a suggestion from one of Huffman’s heroes, the programmer and venture capitalist Paul Graham. He supported them early on as they pulled the site together over a few weeks, living in a single room in a suburb of Boston. The baby-faced Huffman was a gifted programmer, a hacker with an irrepressible mischievous streak and a surprising side-line as a competitive ballroom dancer (he competed with his sister; their brother is now a leading instructor). The imposing, charming Ohanian seemed his ideal complement: a natural entrepreneur. “When we started Reddit we didn’t know where we were going,” says Huffman. “It almost felt like a homework assignment. I was just trying to build this place for programmers to find interesting content.”
If someone had suggested to him then that Reddit would develop global ambitions, “I would have laughed. I wouldn’t even have laughed. I would have scoffed.” Yet Huffman thinks their lack of vision in the early days held Reddit back. If it had been built as a site for everyone in the world, “we would have made different decisions” on content policing, design and engineering. “Reddit was created as a reaction to what we were growing up in – a media in which, we felt, everything was bullshit and spun. Advertising was parasitic. Everybody was lying and just everything was fake.”
He and Ohanian were intent on authenticity, which meant they did not want gatekeepers who would restrict access to information. The problem was that Huffman and Ohanian had not thought far enough ahead. “When we said we don’t remove things, we were thinking swear words. We weren’t dealing with racism or other dangerous content. It wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t on Reddit.” The site “looked old when we built it” too and, although it had a raw, unmediated appeal, its untamed jumble of text and simple graphics date it even more now. Finally, if the founders had seen the future more clearly, they might not have sold the business less than two years later to Condé Nast for between 10 and 20 million USD. “Thank you for stating the obvious,” says Huffman. “Somebody offers you what was significant money to us then for a homework assignment, it’s like we just hit the lottery. But if you’re trying to build something for everybody in the world, you’d be like, ‘We’ve only been working on this for five minutes. Get out of my face.’”
Both co-founders became employees and then left in 2009. They grew apart. Ohanian moved to New York, promoted himself as an evangelist for online freedoms and was nicknamed “mayor of the internet” by Forbes. Huffman tried to build a new business with a different co-founder, a travel company called Hipmunk. Unlike at Reddit, “We had aspirations and we weren’t meeting them. And we weren’t growing. That was humbling. I had to learn a lot of hard lessons. Personally, I went through a divorce at that time as well. So around that time of my life I was confronted with existential failure in the two main things going on in my life at the same time.”
Those years were the catalyst for “a lot of growth” and made him a much better, more empathetic leader. “When I was 20, I thought I knew everything. Now I’ve learnt that I don’t know anything about anything.” From outside the business both founders watched their idealistic hopes for Reddit as a lightly moderated free-speech destination be overtaken by its growing association with a minority of users posting comments and images that were racist, antisemitic, misogynistic and in other ways hateful.
Ohanian returned to Reddit in 2014, as executive chairman. Huffman came back as chief executive in July 2015. By that point communities in the grimmer corners of Reddit included r/Nazi and r/CuteFemaleCorpses. Huffman’s predecessor in the role, Ellen Pao, had endured horrific online harassment by some users. In a public farewell message, she wrote that she had “seen the good, the bad and the ugly” among Redditors and that “the ugly made me doubt humanity”.
In his first week back, Huffman signalled a gear change in Reddit’s attitude to content. “Neither Alexis nor I created Reddit to be a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen,” he wrote. “These are very complicated issues, and we are putting a lot of thought into it.”
Several culls of the most odious subreddits and users followed. Reddit developed tighter content policies, but failed to dispel the perception that it was tolerant of toxic conversations. Then in June 2020, as BLM protests in the real world rocked America in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, the biggest mutiny in Reddit’s history broke out. Subreddit moderators claiming to represent 200 million users signed an open letter denouncing “the problem of Reddit’s leadership supporting and providing a platform for racist users and hateful communities”. They published demands for changes.
Ohanian, by then married to one of the world’s best known black women, tweeted a link to the letter and resigned from the Reddit board. He urged the company to replace him with a black board member, which it did. Huffman has not spoken to Ohanian since.
The Ohanian-Williams wedding in New Orleans in 2017, also attended by Beyoncé and Anna Wintour, was “probably our last happy memory together. I remember when he told me about Serena. He was so excited.”
Huffman was furious when Ohanian left the company. The first he knew about it was during “this weird Covid scene” when he was taking an investor’s call sitting on a kitchen stool at home when the internet went down. “I was bombarded by text messages.”
Does he think they can become friends again? “No. No. We’ve tried to force it over the years. I think the foundation of our relationship hasn’t been there for a long time. We’re just fundamentally incompatible. It’s sad, because we were as close as brothers for a long time. And I really loved him. But I have kind of mourned the death of that relationship.”
Was it worth it? “I’ve tried to systematically remove regret from my life,” he says. The demands in the June 2020 open letter “were all things that we had done already,” he says. Even so, a few weeks later he announced new tougher moderation policies bolstered by stronger enforcement efforts to root out abusive and toxic behaviour on Reddit. Time and again the most effective solutions for clearing out Reddit have been to give more power to moderators, who today “can remove pretty much whatever they want.”
The same logic applies to keeping disinformation at bay. Crowd-sourced fact-checking means that Reddit is “uniquely good” at “sniffing out the bullshit” and debunking lies and conspiracy theories. “It’s hard to have a fringe opinion on Reddit and have it last without getting called out. If the whole community is a problem, we can wipe it out. Gone.We’re not waging guerrilla warfare, looking for all these individuals hiding behind different hashtags. They’re all in one place.”
Returning to his favoured metaphor, Huffman compares the options at his disposal with those available to a city dealing with a breakaway neighbourhood that is actively trying to antagonise the rest of the citizenry. The city’s choices would be “send in the army or wait it out.” Reddit has “a lot more” flexibility. “We can put sanctions on them,” says Huffman. “We can replace leadership. We can quarantine them and ban the community. And of course, none of those things involves violence. That’s a huge distinction.”
Reddit both stokes and reflects the increased political polarisation in the real world – he acknowledges an “interconnectedness” – just as it has magnified and revealed the fear, despair and rising optimism that users have experienced during the pandemic.
“I think there’s a lot to learn about humanity in looking at platforms such as Reddit. It serves as documentation for where the zeitgeist is, what people think about something, where the challenges are.”
He has never met Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, but sees Jack Dorsey, his equivalent at Twitter, now and again for dinner. “I really like Jack. We both have this idealism about the internet. We often just talk about the future of the internet. [At Reddit] we all were children of the open internet. We believe in authenticity. We believe in privacy. We try to do the right thing and we’re building a business in the real world. We often face these conflicts between our own values. I think Jack’s going through the same thing.”
So, can we trust them both to work for the better interests of humanity rather than for their businesses? “I hate that narrative,” says Huffman, smiling again. “I understand why it exists because I could easily have the same cynical view. But the way I look at it, what’s in the best interests of Reddit, in the best interests of the shareholders, in the best interests of people overall: It’s the same thing.”